AMAZON.COM lists more than 36,000 books on the American Civil War, and my guess is that most of them depict battles and heroes, and describe wartime deaths as noble and tragic. Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering" does something different. It's a shattering history of the war, focusing exclusively on death and dying -- how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it.
Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. In proportion to the nation's population, that's six times its death rate in World War II. A similar rate today -- in the Iraq war, for example -- would mean 6 million American deaths. Mass killing, it turns out, didn't require advanced technology like air power and carpet bombing; the humble musket and rifle were sufficient -- along with disease, which was responsible for two-thirds of the fatalities. It was worst in the South, where one in five white men of military age died.
At the outset, both sides assumed the war would be brief -- the kind of "cakewalk" the Bush White House expected would follow after we invaded Iraq. In 1861, as in 2003, the generals had no conception of the years of fighting and waves of death that would follow.